All the Rage: 3D Printing Finding Thousands of Applications

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Photo Credit: Makebot Industries Replicator 3DPrinter

Wikipedia takes us back over two decades but not as far as early Mesopotamia to investigate the history of printing: “In 1993, a new 3D printing technology, ZPrinting (with “z” representing the depth axis), was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[2][3] As in many other rapid prototyping processes, the part to be printed is built up from many thin cross sections of the 3D model. In ZPrinters, an inkjet-like printing head moves across a bed of powder, selectively depositing a liquid binding material in the shape of the section. A fresh layer of powder is spread across the top of the model, and the process is repeated. When the model is complete, unbound powder is automatically removed.[4] Parts can be built on a ZPrinter at a rate of approximately 1 vertical inch per hour.” Marina Hatsopoulos (daughter of former Thermo Electron CFO John) founded Z Corporation in 1994 and it was sold in 2005 and then its MIT license transferred to 3D Systems in January 2012.

So, what is “additive manufacturing or “AM”, you ask? Oh, it’s the industrial version of 3D printing (see a video here) which has been around since. ISO/ASTM52900-15 defines seven categories of AM processes within its ISO framework: Binder Jetting, Directed Energy Deposition, Material Extrusion, Material Jetting, Powder Bed Fusion, Sheet Lamination and Vat Photopolymerization. There are four categories of 3D printer. Firstly we have printers that extrude a molten or otherwise semi-liquid material. Secondly, there are printers that solidify a photocurable resin. Thirdly, there are printers that bind or fuse the granules of a powder. And lastly, there are printers that stick together cut sheets of paper, plastic or metal.3D Printing.com explains:

It all starts with making a virtual design of the object you want to create. This virtual design is for instance a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file. This CAD file is created using a 3D modeling application or with a 3D scanner (to copy an existing object). A 3D scanner can make a 3D digital copy of an object. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.

The approaches employed and devices available (just $200?) are varied and the applications span the manufacturing, household devices, aerospace, auto parts and personalized medical devices. However, the Financial Times recently warned that safety concerns about 3D printed components had slowed adoption of additive manufacturing.

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Picture Credit: Federal Drug Administration (FDA)

Safety is a paramount concern in implantable devices as numerous problems have emerged over time with implanted prosthetics such as artificial hips, stents and other devices (a good backgrounder from JAMA here). Yet medical devices produced by 3D printing now include orthopedic and cranial implants, surgical instruments, dental restorations such as crowns, and external prosthetics. The FDA acknowledges that, “the flexibility of 3D printing allows designers to make changes easily without the need to set up additional equipment or tools. It also enables manufacturers to create devices matched to a patient’s anatomy (patient-specific devices) or devices with very complex internal structures.”. As of December 2015, the FDA had cleared more than 85 3D printed medical devices. Due to its versatility, 3D printing has medical applications in:

Usefully, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) established a 3D Print Exchange to share creation tools and share coding for additive manufacturing models for medicine, implants and bio-medicine as explained in this video.

The FDA has partnered with a number of companies in a forum called “America Makes” which is the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. Established in 2012 and based in Youngstown, Ohio, America Makes is the flagship Institute for Manufacturing USA, the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation, infrastructure of up to 45 Institutes to follow and is driven by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM). In addition, there are some excellent graduate level programs such as StartMIT which provide a 20 day workshop for exposing inventors to entrepreneurialism (an excellent video here).

AM and 3D printing are in a takeoff mode now as you can see, dear reader, so IAI will continue to track the development of these industries as we investigate innovation !

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